There are a thousand guidelines but no rules. Some of us want to escape reality or create a new one. Others prefer to ground themselves, alert to every tick of the clock. But crossing our legs won’t cut it. We have to focus on our breath and treat every ambient happenstance like the random, never-before-uttered revelation it is. What makes meditation challenging, and thus a practice, is knowing that we’ll be repeatedly sucked out of the present moment by thoughts, worries, doubts and distractions. Whether we sit for five minutes or two hours per day, the process becomes more to persevere than find bliss.
Writing’s a lot like meditation. A thousand guidelines, no rules, and that eternal why, lingering at the exhale of our self-criticisms: Why spend one’s precious life [insert verb here]? Surely, for every writer, the why is out there – but pinpointing it almost restricts it. If thinking about meditating spoils the act, it seems clear – the less we think about, worry and doubt why we write, the better we’ll write. The why is more mystical than personal.
An anecdote for the personal: As a teenager, writing helped negotiate a range of emotions that most of my friends sorted or suppressed over endless games of Golden Eye. But I couldn’t see through heartache, or write about other lives and neutral places that weren’t stunted by my gaze. Every intersection became a potential stage for some bloated triumph or failure. And my universe – though technically the size of St. Catharines, Ontario – diminished as suburban patches were absorbed, blocks at a time, into an all-important black-hole I called “poetry”.
That self-mythologizing was a roundabout way of figuring out who I really was: a self-absorbed kid. But it also revealed what I wasn’t: a poet. The real writing began once I dispelled with the baggage, acknowledged my privilege and realized that white, young men largely share the same knack for confessional clichés. Issues of greater, worldly significance crept in from the margins and the why, repelled from the self, joined a community. Who knows: If I continue writing for decades, it’s possible I’ll end up in the fringes or spotlight of somebody else’s literary tradition. And hopefully, if such a thing occurs, I won’t take that too seriously either.
Because writing is alchemy. It doesn’t absolve us of hard work. But sometimes, a handful of ideas – devoid of shared timing, context or geography – will align in ways that work wonders, even if we can’t psychoanalyze why the synthesis feels so true. In those moments, writing has never been more and less about us, as if we’re simultaneously tapping into a subconscious yet collective stream of thought. Tell me that isn’t mystical!
Back in 2015 I celebrated National Poetry Month by sharing erasure poems sourced solely from those aforementioned, teenaged writings. I don’t recommend doing this. After 30 erasures and a lot of wincing, I fulfilled the project by destroying the original, worn-edged moleskins. It was my way of paying tribute – maybe not to the skills I lacked, but to the spirit that kept me writing each night. Whether that made a poet out of me doesn’t matter – it gave me purpose.
Stumbling upon fresh avenues of thought and expression is a thrill, near-bliss. And until we do, we persevere, have faith. That’s why, in spite of our thoughts, worries, doubts and distractions, we sit. And I reckon we’re better people for it.
Ryan Pratt lives in Hamilton, Ontario. His poetry has appeared in Great Lakes Review, Quiddity, and CV2, among other places. Rabbit months (shreeking violet press, 2016) is his debut chapbook.